This morning, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-WV), the longest serving member of the United States senate in history, called on his senate colleagues to rename the pending health care reform legislation after Sen. Kennedy, something that seems certain to happen. There’s a time for remembering Kennedy, simply as a man, with his highs and lows. (For those interested, I wrote our house news obituary of Kennedy overnight. And you can see it here.)
But Byrd’s suggestion brings home the fact that Kennedy’s death, its timing and circumstances are and will be impossible to separate from the politics of the moment. Indeed, one need look no further than the way Kennedy lived the last year of his life to see that he intended as much, conspicuously identifying the aspirations of his life with the battle afoot in Washington and now volubly across the country.
So how will it effect the rising legislative battle?
It’s difficult to miss the almost novelistic way in which the progress of Kennedy’s illness has woven itself in and out of the politics of the last two years. His illness was diagnosed not long after his critical endorsement of Obama in advance of Super Tuesday. And he roused himself to appear at Obama’s nominating convention. His death now comes at the end of what for Democrats has been the cruelest month, six weeks of vitriol and antics which have not only depressed the president’s poll numbers and demoralized many of his supporters but achieved what can only be considered the remarkable feat of entirely sidelining discussion of the chronic insecurity of health insurance coverage for millions of Americans and refocusing it on euthanasia, xenophobia, anti-government paranoia and a sea of misinformation which would be comic if it were not for the seriousness of the underlying issue.
The question I’m asking myself is whether Kennedy’s death will provide a caesura to the song of crazy, jolting the national political conversation (as the coming holiday might have to a much lesser degree) to something approaching reality and refocusing it on the actual question before the country.
Similarly, will it galvanize Democrats? That really is the question.
There’s nothing about Kennedy’s death, that of a man well advanced in years, somber and painful as it is, that should make anyone who disagreed with his policy positions on health care vote for a bill that embodied them. But among the wash of conventional Democrats, sloshing amidst political calculation, the profusion of technical questions and the atmospherics of the moment, will Kennedy’s death serve to arrest thinking for a spell, focus people on the finite quantity of life and the fleeting windows of political opportunity to provide a coalescence, a pivot point toward a conclusion more in line with what Kennedy hoped would be his legacy?
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.